FAR fewer beer and wine commercials are airing on American television these days.
Industry analysts and consumer groups attribute this to the fact that people are drinking less, particularly 18- to 30-year-olds (the group that traditionally drinks the most). As a result, alcoholic-beverage makers have less money to allocate to TV ads.
Despite the drop, a debate is brewing over whether alcohol ads really have an effect on young people, and how much they should be regulated.
Spending for alcoholic-beverage advertising declined in the United States by a dramatic 46.5 percent between 1986 and '93, according to a recent study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a public-interest group in Washington.
This ''massive retreat has paralleled modest reductions in alcohol consumption and the incidence of related problems, particularly among young people,'' the study finds.
Alcohol-related vehiclecrash deaths dropped from 24,045 in 1986 to under 17,500 in '93, as well as reported binge drinking among high school seniors and college students, the study states.
''People are not drinking as much as before, and so the companies have less advertising money to spend,'' says an analyst with Dean Witter in New York, who follows the alcoholic-beverage industry. He adds that people are more fitness conscious today and thus do not drink as much.
As a result, the alcohol industry has reallocated funds to sponsorships and promotions, including price discounting, rebates, contests, and concert tours, says George Hacker, head of CSPI.
The CSPI study asks Congress to ban ads directed at young people and heavy drinkers, require ads to include warnings about the risks of alcohol consumption, and require broadcasters to balance alcohol ads with messages promoting abstinence.
Liquor advertisers recoup more than $750 million of their ad funds through tax deductions - a practice Mr. Hacker says he wants Congress to stop.
But interest in Congress to curb alcohol advertising has waned, he says. And broadcasters and alcoholic-beverage companies, he adds, are doing all they can to block any legislative action.
Alcoholic-beverage interests still spend $2 billion a year on media ads, especially on TV, but also on radio, print, and outdoor billboards, Hacker adds.
About $7 out of every $10 spent on alcoholic-beverage advertising comes from beer marketers, according to another recent study.
Lynn McReynolds, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, denies that alcoholic-beverage ads target youth. ''I just don't agree with this premise,'' she says. No new laws are needed, she says, citing medical studies indicating that moderate drinking may possibly be good for people.
Counters Hacker: ''These health studies about the positive effects of moderate drinking are a key problem in getting across our message.''
Alcohol abuse ''is the third leading killer in the US. It devastates young people more than any other drug. It still kills thousands on the highways, and it results in far greater economic loss to society than tobacco,'' he says.
Elizabeth Board, director of public issues for the Distilled Spirits Council of the US, points out that advertisers have agreed to hire models who are at least 25 years old.
Only 5 percent of drinkers consume up to 50 percent of the alcohol sold in the US, Hacker says. About 6 to 10 percent of young drinkers become alcoholics, he adds, stressing the link between ads that appeal to youth and later addiction.
Ads for St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc. are directed at people 21 years of age or older, says Francine Catz, vice president of Consumer Awareness and Education for the firm.
''High schoolers do not drink because of ads, and we all know that,'' she says. They follow the example of parents and peers, she adds.
Ms. Catz says the study by CSPI is flawed because it does not point out that between 1982 and '86, when alcoholic-beverage ads were growing in number, underage drinking and alcohol-related teenage deaths on the highway were declining. Catz maintains that alcohol-related ads do not increase drinking, adding that Anheuser-Busch decreased its ads somewhat after its market share of US beer sales rose from 22 percent to 45 percent.
Laws to control alcohol advertising are much harder to find support for in Congress than are laws contolling tobacco ads, Hacker explains. One argument against any control at all is that prohibition was not a good policy for the US, he says. The liquor industry is also more savvy than the tobacco industry, he adds, for example, pushing public-service ads and programs to address alcohol problems.